reede, juuli 13, 2007

The English-Speaking Minority

With all the endless talk of minorities and minority rights in Estonia, smaller, less vocal minorities usually get lost in the shuffle. The Swedish minority, most of whom fled in 1944, is just now beginning to reassert itself in its section of Estonia, once called Aiboland. Beyond the Russians and Ukrainians of Tallinn and Narva, there are also Inkeri Finns spread like voi from Toila to Treimani. In fact, in a few counties, Finns are among the dominant minorities, especially during summertime.

Some say that Russians that arrived in the 1960s are a national minority because, hey, 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out a long time ago. But following that logic, history is in the eye of the propagandist, and an argument could just as soon be made that the 1990s were a long time ago -- so long ago that Estonia wasn't even in the European Union or NATO. We are talking ancient history here. We are talking about when Michael Jackson was still somewhat popular.

On that note, I present to you us: the English-speaking minority. Though unrecognized by the state, and wholly unworthy of an Amnesty International report, we do exist. We have our own culture, a culture of speaking English and hanging out in bars like Wilde's Pub in Tartu or Hell Hunt in Tallinn. We have contributed immensely to Estonian culture, hell, one of us helped you with the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001, without which you would have never received an invite to join the European Union. We write interesting stories about you for people to read in The Baltic Times or the City Paper. And what do we ask for in return? To shack up with your women. Just kidding, we ask for nothing in return.

In the spirit of English-speakers of the past, like Robin the Hood or Kevin Costner, we do right by Estonia just because ... we like it here. We heep shame upon the bloated, former Soviet windbags of the Russian Federation, even while giving pause to look incredulous that we owe any more loyalty to Washington or Sydney than we would to the merry men and merry women of Toompea. And English isn't even an official language yet. Instead, we make due with official government webpages that are in our language, and bank ATMs that gladly hand out cash without a question.

Estonia does give its minorities the right to form a cultural autonomy. Though rigid, vengeful legislation prohibits recently arrived minorities, like the English-speakers, to form such a collective, or even to have public education in our own language, we have alternative routes to preserving our language and customs.

The larger, more vocal Russian-speaking minority has its own Russian Cultural Center in Tallinn. I have often wondered what an English Language Cultural Center would look like? Would we sit around reading Shakespeare to appreciate better the art of our mother tongue?
Would we invite English-speaking music acts, like Aerosmith or James Brown, may he rest in peace, to perform in Tallinn? That gets to the root of the question: What is English-language culture. In relation to Estonia, we don't do nearly enough.

What English speaker raises a pints to the brave Brits that helped Estonia win its freedom from the human-gobbling bear of Bolshevist Russia? Who among us Americans gathers to drink to Sumner Welles, the kickass New York-born Under Secretary of State that articulated the non-recognition of the occupation in 1940? When Brits gather in Tallinn, its to watch the football game, fight, vomit, hit on local girls, and fight some more. When Americans gather it's to watch the football game, eat, vomit, hit on some local girls, and eat some more. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Though we are overlooked and occasionally disparagingly called 'Yankee' or 'Limey' or just plain kurat, there are high-ranking Estonians that know how to cater to our needs and make us feel wanted here in Estonia. One such person is President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Though born in Sweden, and a mulk through and through, Ilves is fluent in the English language, and, it gets better, his third foreign language is Spanish! Ai Caramba. Ilves is well respected and liked among English-speakers though privately they are worried by his ultra-continental bowtie.

Although we tend to think of English-speakers as just Americans or Brits, the truth is that many nationalities make up the English-speaking population. There are Australians (see photo at left) and Canadians, and perhaps even New Zealanders. Many third nationalities, like Spaniards, Swiss, and Swedes have also been swallowed up by this English-speaking mass of Homo Anglicus. They work in a variety of fields like IT, teaching, and bar tending, each one carving out his own niche as an English-speaker in Estonian society.

So to all of you who ponder about Estonian minority issues, or minority issues in Europe or even the world, remember us English-speakers holding down the fort in Saaremaa and Pärnu and Tartu and Tallinn. We may be able to get by in eesti keeles, but ask us how we really feel, and we just might have to answer you in the King's English.

31 kommentaari:

in upstate NY ütles ...

Color me stupid, but I have a hard time thinking of the English-phones in Estonia as desparate.

As an Englishphone with an understanding of Estonian, I do not believe that Englishphones are a put upon minority there. English is the lingua-franca (so to speak) of business and the EU.

As a child of Estonian exiles, I know how frightened minorities can feel in a sea of English-speaking peoples. I don't believe the Englishphones are even in that position in Estonia. English is revered and the cool language. In America, those who speak a fractured English are regarded as second-class.

That does not mean it is not sweet to hear and speak one's own language. And even though I learned English in school, Estonian will give me a headache after a while. But there is a big difference in finding relief in one's best language and needing minority status to fight second-class citizenship.

Giustino ütles ...

This piece was intended (mostly) as satire.

ARK ütles ...

Clever, G, really.

You capture the absurdity of world language speakers -- English, Spanish, Mandarin and, er, Russian -- being big babies, and crying foul.

Of course, English is in the ascendant, and remains a truly imperial language. Russian, on the other hand, while in no danger of extinction, might well waning in geopolitical, economic and cultural significance (as compared to the bad old days). But I'll leave that determination to a Russian speaker who's roving the so-called Near Abroad, doing biznis.

I don't want to knock the conversation off your desired track, but allow me to go off an a slight tangent...

Martin Amis has talked about how the English language centre -- where the language is being stoked and developed, made richer -- is no longer the homeland, Britain -- it's the United States. Why? Because of all the other cultural, ethnic and linguistic influences from all over. Might the same be said for English in various Central Eastern Euro zones. That's where native English-speakers escape, and over time begin to speak their mother tongue in slightly different variations... in part because they're initially inclined to speak with ultra-clarity with native interlocutors... but also because, in the expat communities, Yanks, Canucks, Aussies, etc. all mingle and mash it up.

And then there are the English exports/imports into local languages/idioms. I remember way back in the 1990s -- a bygone era -- a Latvian friend asking me how an English-speaker would describe the feeling of being aroused by, say, an attractive woman. I thought hard, scratching my chin, consulted my phrase books, and made a few expensive calls home to Canada.

"Horny," I answered.

My Latvian friend, and the other biedri at the table, really seemed to like the sounds of that.

Weeks later, I inted my Lettish pal to an expat gathering, at which he announced, to the confusion of Brit and Aussie table-mates, that he was "really horny for a beer. Is anyone else horny for a beer?"

In my wider circle of Latvian friends and acquaintances, for years afterwards, "horny" became synonymous with "enthusiastic" or "eager," and I even saw it appear in local print a few times as "hornijs." If Latvians ever have the misfortune of seeing this strange word appear in a dictionary, I'm afraid I'd bear some responsibility.

Apologies for the tangent. But always remember: as a fave prof of mine advised, the tangent is the point.

ARK ütles ...


Weeks later, I invited my Lettish pal [...]

in upstate NY ütles ...

Sorry, I guess it runs to close to my experience, as having been a minority.

Erratum: s/b anglophone, not English-phone.

Giustino ütles ...

Clever, G, really.

Well I have read a lot of these COE and Amnesty documents and I was thinking about what it would look like if we applied this European notion of minority rights to English speakers in a place like Prague or Tallinn. It started to get funny ...

ARK ütles ...

Exactly, G. The most recent CoE démarche vis-à-vis Esto citizenship gave me a creepy sense of déjà vu. Some years ago, I used to track and read these docs, as they seemed to be coming out every couple of days. This latest could've almost been churned out 10 years ago. It's a cottage industry, I guess.

LPR ütles ...

Are there any monuments or symbols in Tallinn the removal of which would make you anglos go beserk?

Giustino ütles ...

The most recent CoE démarche vis-à-vis Esto citizenship gave me a creepy sense of déjà vu.

They are actually not that bad. In fact if you read both the Amnesty Report and the CoE report they endorse school reform while condemning over regulation of public space -- language inspectorate etc.

So what they essentially say is -- it's not cool to fire someone because they can't speak Estonian or because they use their native language in certain business environments, AND you Eestlased better speed up that damned school reform so that this problem gets wiped out for the next generation.

The media/Russian gov't only focus on the bad parts ...

ARK ütles ...

Yeah, I know. Not a matter of that bad. Some points make perfect sense, if Balts wanna be part of The Club. And these guys -- CoE, EU, OSCE, etc -- have actually been on our side, and actually did much to civilize policy last decade. More a matter of, with some long-view, it feels a bit like groundhog day...

anonüümne ütles ...

What English speaker raises a pints to the brave Brits that helped Estonia win its freedom from the human-gobbling bear of Bolshevist Russia?

Lord Carlisle of Tartu.

Jaan ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Jaan ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Jaan ütles ...

Eesti does not have Lords. This sounds to me invented.

Mike ütles ...

One thing I've noticed is that the english speaking minority - by this I would include residents and frequent visitors, and not the tourists or Brits on stag nights etc - is scattered, and would not be considered a "community", as would, say, the Russian section of the population.

All the non-tourist english speakers I've met have been there by choice and have shown a healthy concern - if not love - of the country. But those I've met mix mostly with estonians, rather than other english speakers.

Has anyone come across any sign of an english speaking "community", aside from those hanging out at Wilde's or similar?

Tiamsuu ütles ...

It's Queen's English, surely?

Kristopher ütles ...

Before i left Estonia, I was in a nowhere part of town behind the central market and I noticed the Chinese have what is essentially a second embassy there -- a palace of culture. What's up with that? And what goes on there? They have a satellite dish and large antennas, so they must offer good entertainment programmes for people who stop in.

An English cultural centre could definitely be something like that -- half-official. Financing will be better and otherwise it will just be a novelty or descend into irrelevancy.

But it would have to be politically independent. In any case, I would team up with the British and other English-speaking nations and let Estonian contractors build a new and fancy building.

Or talk to the Canadians. They have some really nice real estate up on Toompea that apparently isn't even being used as a full-fledged embassy. (Like fellow Western hemisphere countries Guatemala and Mexico, they have one embassy for all three Baltic states).

Then, add a cafe, a restaurant, have community events and readings.

Definitely serve North American food -- good food that you can't get in Estonia. Bagels. Microbrewery. This will keep it a draw for expats. The British can sit back and relax in this category, maybe they can serve toad the wet sprocket or a few ales.

For the cultural offerings, start with the usual suspects, political observers, splendid enlightened people, like Paul Goble, Edward Lucas, who are interesting enough to be having lectures and talks on a regular basis.

Kristopher ütles ...

G merely mentions a cultural center rhetorically and I'm brainstorming on how to do it.

It's probably pathetic that I'm taking it quite literally -- but so is the situation with bagels. I'll even settle for a Montreal bagel if I'm in Estonia. And they can spell and pronounce the center "centre". But much more I am not willing to concede, to the other speakers of the English.

As far as I'm concerned, the community events and readings part is optional, too. What I'm talking about here -- the ilve, beating heart of the cultural centre, if you will -- is this: a food court in the center of the centre serving American specialties where one can go and peruse a good selection of the latest non-fiction books -- while eating --without paying for them.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Jens-Olaf ütles ...

You are taking it literally when you are raising children with parents from different language heritage. Three languages are acquired in ours. So education where and how and how often and so on is an issue.

Anonüümne ütles ...

It would be more correct to say in eesti keel rather than in eesti keeles. In eesti keeles is like saying in in Estonian. Eesti keeles already means= in estonian.
You can get bagels in prague.Bohemia Bagel. I am sure the tallin bagelry will come. I would personally be as happy with good croissants.

Kristopher ütles ...

Well you've got La Napoleon on Lai street and Petit Jacques behind Kaarli kirik, each of which turn out a flaky, real-butter croissant. Balti Sepik makes an apple croissant which is loaded with transfats but tastes great.

The French minority in Estonia has it good. Too good. Time to redress the balance.

Juan Manuel ütles ...

this European notion of minority rights

Actually I wonder if it is a European notion. There is no such thing as "minority rights" in France. Everyone had to be equal and had to accept the principles of the Republic and even affirmative action seemed to be a threat for them.

The EU started talking about human rights after the 1991 Paris Charter for a New Europe (I think that is the name in English). Human rights were first included in the treaties in article 6 (before it was F2) of the Treaty of the European Union in Maastricht in 1992. And the 2001 Charter of human rights was adopted just because of the fourth enlargement.

I wrote all this because the EU started to talk about human rights (and the rights of minorities) basically because of the enlargement. So we could say that is more of a Eastern-European concept.

I have a very good article written by a tzech professor about this, if you are interested i can put it online for you.

klx ütles ...

see, this is why most expats prefer to hang with estonians rather than "fellow anglophones"

i don't see that there is a real international kinsmanship based on the english language, beyond what is broadcasted to us, and beyond common histories and glad-handing diplomacy.

the english speaking world is too diverse. personally (and as an australian), i have no interest in bagels. if i were to live in a non-english speaking country and felt i had to hang with english speakers all the time, i'd question my original reasons for being there in the first place (probably to absorb some language, culture.)

if i wanted to watch "friends", learn about bagels, i'd either go to americac, or stay at home watching commercial tv. if i want to fight with a brit, once again, i'll go to a pub at home (or watch government tv). if i wanted to jabber with a jamaican, i'd... i dunno. lol

klx ütles ...

sorry - kinship?

plasma-jack ütles ...

Anyone ever heard that British Council is operating in Tallinn? Or what about an "elite" highschool called English College? I don't think that US culture needs any more promoting here than it currently has.

Kristopher ütles ...

The British Council and English College could be given representatives at the new cultural center. On the ground level, next to the travel agents and across from the food court. (The center is already a done deal in my mind.)

I was also thinking THIS could be a use of the Tõnismägi park.

But if the centre gets any bigger, there will be security concerns from terrorism. That may involve shutting down a block in central Tallinn, but perhaps razing the buildings to provide lines of sight from the parapets.

plasma-jack ütles ...

The British embassy has already closed down "their" half of the Wismari street. They're only a bit more polite with locals than Yanks.

plasma-jack ütles ...

Why couldn't they move their embassy to some secure island? We don't need a visa to visit them anyway and the British bachelors could well use some swimming exercise.

Ain Kendra ütles ...

Juan Manuel - yes, of course, give us the czech professor's view

Juan Manuel ütles ...

Ok, this is probably to late and you are all in the newest post but here is the link:

The author argues that European Countries started to worry about HR when they saw that the 5th enlargement was going to become a reality.